I have many scars. Some physical, that have marked my body forever, and others that have scored my mind and heart. At times these scars have pulled me down to dark places and they have also raised me to the highest place of determined strength.
I am who I am because of them.
When I was 16 years old it felt like my world ended. My Mum lost her long battle with breast cancer after 5 long years of suffering. As her cancer consumed her body, it consumed our family. I did what I could to pretend that I was living a normal teenage life and spent a lot of time at my best friend’s house. It was hard to be at home with that much pain there and I don’t remember a lot about that time . It seems like such a blur, the brain does that when you are going through trauma to protect you.
I had immense fear about what my life would be like after I had lost the one person who I had expected to be there for me. Not quite a year later, my mother’s mum, my grandmother also lost her battle with breast cancer and I was deeply traumatised by losing them both. At school I had a wonderful teacher who gave up her lunchtimes to sit with me along with my closest group of friends who were also very affected my Mum’s death. Although my teenage years were very different from my friend’s lives worrying about hair, acne or boyfriends, they were all very loving and supportive and gave me a great network where I could share my vulnerabilities.
People often commented to me that I was ‘so strong and coping well’. I think instead, after so many years of being around pain, suffering and quiet sadness, I just did not want to feel grief. I watched my Dad struggle to keep it all together for my younger sister and me, and I didn’t allow myself to experience the full reach of that grief, the pain in my heart.
There was one moment that was very special between Mum and I just before she passed. I was standing at the end of the bed, holding my own breath as I watched her chest rising to see if she was still breathing. She woke up from sleep and said to me, ‘Take every opportunity you get’. That piece of advice changed my life and although I haven’t always made the best decisions, I have taken risks and given everything a go that has come across my path. As a result, I have had a rich life of experiences in many fields from hospitality to youth work.
In my late teens, I moved away from home and to dull the pain that was raging in my chest, I walked into disastrous relationships, risky situations and finally had a breakdown at the age of about 24. By this time, my Dad had remarried and my Step-Mum helped me get back on my feet. I got the counselling I needed and learned one very poignant lesson during that time. Everything that happens in your life prepares you for the next point of change.
Fast forward a few years, I had three beautiful children but I was insecure. I felt ugly and could not look at myself in the mirror. I hated my body and even more so my breasts and underwent a breast reduction. The surgery left great angry welts of scars that were painful and noticeable, even after many years this scarring was still uncomfortable.
In my 30’s I still grieved for my Mum. I would often have the fear that I would follow the same path especially with my relationship with my own breasts and the scarring I now had.
I finally had the chance to rebuild my life, my strength and my self-esteem and I did it by spending two years on my own, getting to know myself. I took a long hard look within and did the work. I was in such a beautiful mindset that I would go for my morning walk and often stop in awe at the beauty of the sun kissing the dawn sky. It was at this time that I met my new husband and his three children. We became the Brady Bunch, honouring time to build a family relationship slowly and let the kids guide us as to when it was time to move forward. We then bought a big house, moved everyone in together and got married. It was an exciting, stressful, emotional, brave and life changing time for us all.
We had the most beautiful wedding. It was the perfect day. It was all we had expected and more. Life was good. We went on the honeymoon of a lifetime and I still think of this time as my happiest ever. Cruising the high seas in my bikini, drinking cocktails by the pool. Nothing could bring me down.
Six months later our world came crashing down. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My whole life flashed before my eyes and we had to tell our children and families the awful news. It has been a long journey of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, more surgeries and more to come. My body has been through so much and is changed forever. My left breast was removed along with some of my lymph nodes under my arm. I have also had reconstruction surgery and recovery has been painful and long. My journey isn’t over yet, as I await more surgery.
The gifts of this experience have also been many. Having walked through the journey that I had been so afraid of most of my life, I have realised my own strength, love and powerful determination. I have come to understand unconditional body love and realise a secret to living a happy life.
One sacred day, I stood in front of the mirror, bald, one boob, scars and all. I stared at my reflection and with love in my heart said to her ‘Woman - you are beautiful’. Then I began to list all of the parts of my life that I was grateful for. At first it was the obvious things - my husband, children, family, house and so on. And then something incredible happened… I went deeper. I saw the love that I was within, a love and warmth that was ancient and always. It made me smile and see the calm river I have always been under the pain.
I have found a deep appreciation for my breast cancer journey and all the changes it is creating. I am grateful for all I have been through which has taught me to accept myself for who I am. I have finally forgiven myself for all the decisions I once regretted – released myself of guilt and body shame – not just for me, but for my entire family line.
I would like to think that seeing my journey this clearly will mean that I am the last of my family to have to walk this experience – that it finishes here. Having three teenage girls growing up in our home, we are raising them to be strong and speak their truth. We always discuss body image issues openly with them and remind them that they are beautiful, no matter what and that their happiness comes from within.
Forgiving those who have hurt you is vital – it only festers and burns and ties you to past pain. I am learning each day to live my life through love. My scars still sting, but how I choose to react has changed. How I choose to see life has changed. My life has changed. I have changed. My heart has changed, and it couldn’t be better…
Ali Williams-Hodgson writes a blog at rawandcompletelybeautiful.wordpress.com.
www.madebeautifulbyscars.com is a human global story series created by Author, Therapist and cancer warrior Veronica Farmer, capturing real stories from men and women who have refused to let life scars hold them back from creating an extraordinary life.
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